The Chrysler Building

My Favourite Buildings…The Chrysler Building, NYC.

  • Tallest building in the world from 1930 to 1931
  • Still the world’s tallest steel-frame, brick-clad building
  • First man-made structure to stand taller than 1,000 feet
  • Cost: $15 million
  • Sold by Walter Chrysler in the mid 1950s
  • Floors: 77
  • Floor area: 1,195,000 sq. ft.
  • Elevators: 34
  • 3,826,000 hand-laid bricks
  • 391,881 rivets
  • Voted New York’s favourite tower by 100 architects, builders, critics, engineers and historians

Between May 27th 1930 and April 30th 1931, the world had a new tallest building – the glorious, 282m Art Deco masterwork that is New York’s Chrysler Building. With the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building (that took the ‘tallest building’ crown later in 1931), it defines the New York skyline – you have to go to Chicago to find their architectural peers. But what makes it so well loved?

For many, that it is not only Art Deco but Art Deco on the grandest of scales is reason enough, but Art Deco is not a style I’m inherently attracted to and therefore my admiration of the Chrysler Building is based on what sets it apart, even from other Deco masterpieces.

Designed by William Van Alen as a head office for the eponymous car company, the company’s owner, Walter P. Chrysler, paid for its construction personally so that his sons could inherit it – though I’m sure his paternal concerns didn’t stop him collecting the rent during the 20 years he owned it.

So, this is a commercial building intended to proclaim and advertise the virtues of its sponsor and you could be forgiven for thinking that a piece of American, money-no-object corporate marketing would tend towards the crass. But how Alen achieved his master’s demands is extraordinary, especially as his master’s ego was limitless. But, rather than being compromised by the brief, he used it as a creative springboard.

It is the building’s crown with its seven radiating terraced arches that makes it uniquely distinct, both timeless and so very much of its time. Immediately and unmistakeable, it is a remarkable piece of design and engineering: “a cruciform groin vault constructed into seven concentric members with transitioning setbacks, mounted up one behind another. The stainless-steel cladding is ribbed and riveted in a radiating sunburst pattern with many triangular vaulted windows, transitioning into smaller segments of the seven narrow setbacks of the facade of the terraced crown. The entire crown is clad with silvery Enduro KA-2 metal, an austenitic stainless steel developed in Germany by Krupp and marketed under the trade name Nirosta (a German acronym for nichtrostender Stahl, meaning non-rusting steel).” But you don’t have to know that to marvel at it.

Van Alen even managed to incorporate some product placement that, far from compromising its aesthetics, actually enhances its look – eagle eyed car buffs will spot that the building’s gargoyles resemble the bonnet ornaments of the Chrysler Plymouth and the corner ornaments replicate 1929 Chrysler radiator caps!

As New York’s wannabe Alpha Male, Walter Chrysler demanded two things of his architect and building. First his private penthouse had to include the tallest toilet in Manhattan and, second, it had to be the tallest building full stop. The first demand was easily met. But the second required a little skulduggery as they had competition. Another skyscraper (designed by Craig Severance, Van Alen’s former collaborator), was simultaneously going up at 40 Wall Street with exactly the same ambition. Severance lengthened his spire by 60’ to push it to 925’, 85’ taller than Van Alen’s original drawings. Chrysler and Van Alen retaliated in a similar fashion and added their own spire – all 186’ of it. But they built and hoisted its four parts in secret so as they riveted them in place (it took just 90 minutes), 40 Wall Street was celebrating a victory that wasn’t.

A staggering four storeys went up every week and by the time the building was topped out with that spire, not one single worker had lost his life – five died during the building of the Empire State Building.

It’s an extraordinary building with an equally colourful history and as there isn’t room here to show it in all its glory,  do click HERE if you’d like to see more. And if you’re lucky enough to find yourself in Manhattan, head off to 405 Lexington Avenue.

Duncan Ansell